When the chestnut colt who entered this world 100 years ago today was foaled, it is natural to wonder if there was any inkling of how he would practically come to be the standard by which any racehorse would be measured. This can be asked now that we can look back on how his life and career unfolded, but when he was foaled that day so long ago the few brief lines jotted down about his foaling don’t reveal much more than particulars of gender, color and markings. Yet his pedigree spoke of the hoped-for potential possible for the young colt, with his sire being the highly-regarded Fair Play and his dam the daughter of an English Triple Crown winner.
While Man o’ War was born and lived before my time, I too see him as the standard by which all racehorses should be measured. I had only to read Walter Farley’s biography of him which brought him to life so vividly to be captivated. While considered fiction, it wove enough fact into the tale to be a good account of Big Red’s life and career.
The celebration of the one hundredth anniversary of Big Red’s foaling began aptly enough in front of the life-sized likeness of him sculpted by Herbert Haseltine at the Kentucky Horse Park. The statue is a masterpiece–compared to photos of its famous inspiration, the proud stance and the head held high are very evocative of how Man o’ War presented himself to visitors over the years in retirement. There even seemed to be a freshly restored gleam to the statue’s eye that may have always been there prior to the recent application of a new patina, a gleam that also seemed to give a further glimpse of the living horse.
For one historian, the day was a perfect time to share his personal recollections of Man o’ War, and I was as captivated by his speech as I had been by Walter Farley’s book about Big Red. The difference was, it felt like being even closer to getting a sense of who Man o’War had been as recounted what he had personally meant to him, particularly in regard to the day of his funeral. For many of us today, while revered, Man o’ War exists only in these stories, photos, and video. That is more than enough to keep his legacy alive, but only when hearing from someone who grew up in close proximity to “Red” can the truest measure of what he meant to people be fully realized. The historian (regrettably, I did not catch his name) had to take a moment to regain his composure when saying he and his father stayed on the outskirts of the funeral service, for they did not want to see Man o’ War in his casket or remember him that way.
I can understand. Any great horse should always live in our memories as “near to a living flame as horses ever get,” as Joe Palmer famously described Man o’ War.
The Horse Park showed a video about Man o’ War’s life, which had footage of him running with a burst of such power and speed in his paddock in retirement it engendered awe. The might of Man o’ War was truly incredible, and there is no doubt even 100 years later, he still deserves every bit of the accolade and to be the standard by which all racehorses are measured.
I never saw him in the flesh, yet for all those reasons and more, I know I will never forget him. I do sometimes wish I had been one of many who poured through the gates to see him in retirement, but much like Farley, Palmer, and the historian helped bring him to life for new generations, naturally his devoted groom Will Harbut has to be mentioned for perhaps burnishing Man o’ War’s already significant legacy possibly more than anyone else.
Therefore, it seems only fitting to close with his famous words that have stood the test of time in transmitting across the years what his charge represented to him and to all who came to visit.
“This is Man o’ War. He ran in twenty-one races and won twenty of them. A horse named Upset beat him at Saratoga when he was turned sideways at the start. He beat that hoss bad afterward. As a three-year-old he ran in eleven races and won them all. He ran a mile in 1:35 4/5 and broke the track record. He won the Lawrence Realization by a hundred lengths and set a new record. There wasn’t anything to run with him when they retired him to stud. He is a great sire; he sired horses that have won three million dollars. There was American Flag, Crusader, Mars, Bateau, Battleship, Clyde Van Dusen, War Admiral, and War Relic.
The year War Admiral won the Derby he had four sons that were champions. War Admiral was the champion three-year-old, Battleship was the champion steeplechaser, Blockade was the champion timber hoss, and Holystone was the champion hunter.
Folks talk about ‘second Man o’ Wars.’ There ain’t any second Man o’ Wars. This is the greatest hoss of them all. Nobody will ever know how good he was—there wasn’t anything to run with him. There ain’t ever been anything like him and maybe there won’t be ever again.
Man o’ War didn’t need no excuses. He broke all the records and he broke down all the horses, so there wasn’t nothing for him to do but retire. He’s got everything a horse ought to have, and he’s got it where a horse ought to have it. He’s just da mostest hoss. Stand still, Red.”